Excessive casualties to coalition soldiers in Afghanistan could lose the war. But a military culture that values force protection above popular support can be just as dangerous in the long run and very hard to change, as a recent experience with two convoys there suggests.
The first came during a traffic jam in Kabul, which is infamous for its hours-long backups during rush hour. I was stuck with several colleagues on the Jalalabad Road while returning from meetings at allied headquarters.
We had been sitting for what seemed like forever when we noticed a commotion in the traffic behind us. Soon there appeared a dozen or so American soldiers, walking forward among the stalled cars, yelling at the drivers and gesticulating wildly with their rifles, trying to wave the civilians to the side of the crowded roadway.
Behind the soldiers came a logistical convoy of armored flatbeds carrying crated cargo and escorted by "gun trucks" - armored Humvees with machine guns in rotating turrets. Their drivers were sounding sirens and blasting the horns. The gunners were slewing left and right, playing their green aiming lasers across the windows of non-cooperating cars and pausing occasionally to train .50-caliber machine guns from the turrets onto specific pedestrians or vehicles. The message was clear: make way or else.
Slowly the sea of cars parted before the convoy and the Americans pushed through. From the acid looks of the drivers and passengers around us, however, it was clear that the United States had won no hearts or minds on Jalalabad Road that day. The convoy got through quicker, and reduced its exposure to suicide bombers or roadside ambushes. But it probably left a dozen new recruits for the Taliban among the angry and humiliated Afghans in its wake.
The second convoy was taking our analytical team to the eastern village of Baraki Barak in Logar Province. I was in the front passenger seat of the third of six vehicles. About 20 minutes into the journey a bicyclist with a sack on his back cut in front of our vehicle from a dirt side road. With our 19-ton, nine-foot-tall armored MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) behind him, the cyclist calmly peddled along.
Rather than bearing down on him, sounding a siren, or risking a pass on the narrow country lane, our driver simply slowed down. The vehicles ahead of us continued as before, and we briefly lost contact between the first two and the last four MRAPs in the convoy. Yet we continued at a bicyclist's pace until the interloper eventually turned off onto another side road, whereupon we accelerated and closed up the column once more.
If the sack had held explosives, and if the walled compounds of any of the villages we passed had concealed insurgents, the result could have been an ambush and possible American casualties. With a lot less effort than the convoy on Jalalabad Road, we easily could have pushed the bicyclist aside, maintained formation, and continued on our way with no disruption of our defensive potential. By allowing a potential suicide bomber to split a convoy, our driver took a calculated risk.
But in exchange, the convoy to Baraki Barak prevented a dirt-covered bicyclist from picking himself up from a ditch, shaking his fist at arrogant Americans and taking his story back to the village for conversion into a recruitment tale for the Taliban. Higher risk that day was an investment in lower risk for the future.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal has made it clear which of these approaches he wants: he expects his forces to accept greater risk when necessary to avoid alienating Afghan civilians. The Jalalabad Road convoy was just the kind of behavior he believes could lose the war. He is right. And slowly but surely, methods are changing.
But coalition forces are a sprawling collection of many nations, many units and hundreds of commanders. To compel change across such a vast organization is a major leadership challenge.
This challenge, moreover, will be especially hard. General McChrystal's methods trade short-term risk for long-term benefit. Risk is part of war, and soldiers are trained to put the mission first. But in counterinsurgency, mission success can look abstract and distant, whereas the costs of risk acceptance are immediate, visible and personal. This can make commanders reluctant to pressure subordinates to accept more risk when their soldiers will pay the price.
The Jalalabad Road convoy's choices were short-sighted, and such methods threaten the entire war effort if they continue. But they are also understandable, and will require painful decisions at many levels of command to change. It will probably take time before we see the last convoy create more enemies than it kills in Afghanistan.
Stephen Biddle is a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.